Apology not accepted: Man who took 23 million-year-old whale fossil receives mixed response

By Contributor

Harry Jensen was spotted removing a beloved fossil in October. Photo / Peter Lei via Stuff

By Sinead Gill

A public apology for taking a 23 million-year-old fossil has not gone down well with locals, who question if it is genuine.

Harry Jensen removed a cherished whale fossil from a West Coast beach in October while locals watched, sparking an investigation by council and iwi with the help of police.

A local who confronted him at the time says the amateur palaeontologist seemed more concerned with his reputation than giving the community closure.

At the time Jensen refused to tell onlookers his name or who he worked for. A colleague was reportedly aggressive and intimidating to locals who confronted them.

In a letter sent to media and published online on Monday, Jensen said he was there with a team, which Stuff understands included a male colleague, his partner and a child. He said he “recovered”, the fossil, and said it was to protect it from erosion.

He expressed “deep regret” for the negative publicity his actions caused iwi, Te Papa and Otago Museum, once his actions reached national, then international news.

He said as an amateur palaeontologist and citizen scientist who had made several significant discoveries on the West Coast, his work had been for the good of the public.

Jensen had incorrectly told locals at the time he had iwi permission to remove the fossil, and suggested the fossil might be displayed at Te Papa, despite the work being done in his personal capacity.

Locals said Jensen’s colleague was aggressive when asked who they were and what they were doing. Photo / Peter Lei via Stuff

Locals said Jensen’s colleague was aggressive when asked who they were and what they were doing. Photo / Peter Lei via Stuff

In November, the police executed a search warrant on Jensen’s West Coast property to recover the fossil.

Locals told Stuff they hadn’t heard from Jensen since the incident, however iwi representative Francois Tumahai told the West Coast Regional Council in February that iwi was working with Jensen to put things right, including make a public apology.

Tumahai said a request was made for police to return the fossil to Jensen, so he could restore it before he “properly returned” it to the community.

Tumahai was approached for comment on the apology this week.

A West Coast Regional Council spokesperson referred Stuff to Tumahai for comment regarding possible prosecution, but confirmed it had no involvement in an apology.

The fossil was taken from an area between the high and low tide marks, which makes the legality of its removal a grey area.

Local, Tom Horncastle, who confronted Jensen on the day, was named in Jensen’s letter without his knowledge.

Jensen wrote he would honour his word to Horncastle that the fossil would stay in the community, but Horncastle recalled being told it could end up in a museum like Te Papa “or” come back to Karamea.

Asked if he accepted the apology, Horncastle said: “It’s all hearsay until it’s [the fossil] back in Karamea.”

Police later seized the fossil from Jensen’s property. Photo / Peter Lei via Stuff

Police later seized the fossil from Jensen’s property. Photo / Peter Lei via Stuff

“I’m holding judgement until then... until we see what condition it is in.”

Another man, Peter Lei, separately confronted Jensen that day. He didn’t accept the apology, as it didn’t include an apology for lying or confrontational behaviour.

“His mate was in my face, up close, loud voice and ranting,” Lei said.

He questioned how the fossil could have been at imminent risk when it was millions of years old, or how it was for the public good when the public had clearly been unhappy.

“He’s trying to make himself sound professional when his actions were anything but.”

Online, a few people have welcomed the return of the fossil and Jensen’s apology, but most appear dissatisfied.

Jensen was approached for comment on when the fossil would be returned, whether an expert was involved in its restoration, and why he didn’t acknowledge his refusal to identify himself and his project with the locals or the intimidation they felt at the time.